The men stood on platforms so they were a few feet off the ground. That way, the crowds could see them and, more importantly, they could see the displays behind the men at the corner of Baltimore and Liberty streets in front of the Second National Bank in Cumberland. The men called out to the crowds. They cracked jokes, made sales pitches and overstated promises as they tried to sell homemade medicines.
On March 30, 1878, The Alleganian reported on the appearance of two worm medicine men who had “eloquence, stale jokes and slang phrases that have emanated from the street orators and wayside druggists. With stentorian lungs of wonderful endurance, they have shouted aloud, all the symptoms that indicate the presence of tape and all other kinds of worms that have ever afflicted humanity.”
The men were convincing in their pitches because a majority of the crowds that gathered around them seemed willing to buy a bottle of the medicine. Part of their effectiveness was that the medicine men mastered the fear factor and convinced listeners that “every mother’s son of them had from a quart to a half bushel of the parasites feeding upon his ‘inward,’ and others were satisfied that they had tape worms varying in length from thirty feet to thirteen miles.”
Sickness was something that most people dealt with on their own at this time in Cumberland’s history. The area had only eight doctors at this time to treat more than 11,000 people in the city, not counting anyone outside of the city limits. This created a ripe field for medicine men who promised easy answers to health problems.
As the years progressed, the shows became more refined and elaborate. By the 20th Century, the shows would set up tents on vacant lots in town and advertise their shows in the newspapers. The crowds would come to see the shows.
“Most of these medicine shows had Black musicians and entertainers, but the show would be directed by white owners,” Herman Miller wrote in Cumberland, Maryland, through the Eyes of Herman Miller.
Once the crowd had gathered, the medicines were sold before the entertainment began.
Miller described a snake oil medicine show, which he calls, “One of the most colorful of all sellers of cure-alls.”
A group came to town and rented a room in the building in that existed before the Fort Cumberland Hotel. The showmen keep rattlesnakes in a box that they would take out and drape over their necks and arms. The snakes were defanged, though not everyone realized this.
“The salesmen would then go to work telling all the benefits of rattlesnake oil. They were told the oil would cure everything from toothache to the common cold, bruises, sprains, skin diseases and other ailments,” Miller wrote.
The cost for this miracle cure? A dollar a bottle.
Medicine shows died off as medicines became more regulated and getting healthcare from a doctor became easier.
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